Splashed over the glitz and glamor of Times Square hung a giant billboard last month touting NBC’s newly-inked deal to carry English Premier League (EPL) games. Yes, you heard right, a major network has finally figured out that soccer has a huge following in the United States, which translates into advertising revenue. So, using an image of Gareth Bale of the Tottenham Hotspurs of the EPL, NBC Sports Network hyped the fact that beginning Aug. 17, they would be airing "every match, every team, every week" for the EPL, a major coup for soccer fans throughout the U.S. Then last week, Gareth’s image was replaced with a graphic art advertisement for NBC featuring the tag line: "Don’t call it soccer. It’s football . . . just not as you know it."
The advent of this sign heralds a major push to promote and air professional soccer, I mean football, as a significant and widely played sport. This is good news for youth players, who have often competed under the cloud of not choosing a "real" sport. Now the rest of the world has burst into the American living room with validation of the power and prestige of football through the televised programming of EPL.
Previously, we counted on Fox Soccer Channel to air matches, often live, but the breadth of their delivery was not as significant as this newest deal with NBC. I am forever grateful to Fox for taking the chance on soccer when any number of naysayers said it was ridiculous to devote so much air time to a sport that had no real American support. Fox averaged 200,000 viewers a match and that doesn’t include viewers tuning into GOL TV, Telemundo, Univision and, of course, ESPN, who also took a chance on airing both MLS and European games to American audiences. Recently, beIN Sports, a branch of the Al-Jazeera network, took over the Italian, Spanish and French Premier League broadcasts as well as the English second-tier league. The channel is only available to customers of DISH and DirecTV, greatly limiting the viewing audience. Therefore, NBC has opened up soccer to those in all markets, which should enhance viewership. Additionally, NBC offers the cache of a well-known, long-term network affiliation. While Fox lost its bid to be the provider of the EPL matches for the next three years, it will continue to show college soccer, women’s professional soccer and occasional European Championship games. Having led the way with an all-soccer channel for years, Fox is in the unique position of having both experience and a following that will serve the underrepresented American soccer teams such as college, youth, high school and women with a venue to build up interest among US viewers. The much appreciated and highly regarded Fox Soccer News will now be called Fox Daily Soccer and will continue to bring insights and commentary on the world of soccer, letting viewers know about trades, injuries and standings of teams around the world. However, it will appear on the new Fox Soccer 1, which replaces Speed Channel on your TV listings Aug. 17. The original Fox Soccer Channel will then disappear. ESPN also lost Major League Soccer, which will now air solely on the various channels of NBC Sports for at least the next three years. But again, ESPN will have plenty of other soccer matches that it can add to its line-up, giving soccer fans a wider variety.
What do these broadcast additions mean for youth soccer? Probably most significantly, it opens up the world of soccer to players who can now watch nearly any level of the sport. Becoming a strong soccer player entails being a student of the game. All too often we limit our viewing of soccer to the youth games in which our kids participate, but that view is far too narrow. It’s easy for a kid to look super human when only compared to other kids her same age and skill level. Youth players develop both in size and skill at very different timetables, making it virtually impossible to judge a player’s potential within those limited parameters. Being able to watch high school and college soccer shows youth players the levels to which they need to strive, while watching professional soccer shows the complicated and well-orchestrated team tactics that go into moving the ball down the pitch or preventing the ball from entering the goal the team is defending. In youth soccer, there’s the "bee to honey" formation that on an overhead shot shows all the players swarming to the ball. The biggest and most aggressive player usually ends up winning possession, but without developing the skills and understanding of the game needed to compete as teams learn to spread out and play positions, that big player will ultimately end up being left behind. Watching soccer helps young players see and understand the more advanced nuances of the game. Another wonderful effect of more soccer on accessible TV channels can be measured in the prestige given to the sport. When soccer begins sharing the sports networks’ spotlight with more popular sports such as American football, baseball and basketball, kids can point with pride to the acceptance of their sport of choice. This will eventually translate into more fans at games, higher salaries for players, attraction of more athletes, improved college scholarships, and greater youth participation.
Right now, many MLS franchises have been selling out their seasons, most notably the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. In 1999, the first soccer-specific stadium was built in the US for the Columbus (OH) Crew. It’s not wholly a coincidence that Fox Soccer Channel launched in 1997, giving American audiences a window on the entire soccer world, promoting the beauty, power and sensibleness of soccer-only parks. Today, just 14 years later, only five of the 19 MLS teams play in a non-soccer specific stadium. However, the Sounders field was purposely designed to accommodate both soccer and American football by being able to reconfigure the field for intimate seating around the entire soccer pitch. San Jose Earthquakes will be in a new stadium in a year. Vancouver Whitecaps play in a new stadium designed for both soccer and Canadian football. The newest team, Montreal Impact, just completed their new soccer stadium, so the number of teams having to put up with unwanted dual purpose venues is dwindling rapidly. This push to build pure soccer stadiums has been prompted by the increased interest in the sport, which will be further fueled by greater television exposure and a surge in youth players.
Expanded coverage of soccer will mean some major shake-ups as networks scramble to carve out their piece of the soccer world, but for fans this means a wider variety of matches, leagues and soccer news. While we may never call it "football" since American football has stolen that designation, we fans do recognize that around the world this is the real football enjoyed by millions of enthusiasts. We don’t need to change what we call the sport in order to appreciate the expanded coverage our beloved pastime will now enjoy. With a greater and more accessible variety of matches, we are the true winners, whether it’s called soccer or football. It’s still the greatest sport in the world!